Saving the biggest for last. As I’ve covered before, this isn’t a typical “best players” ranking. If you see a high school kid listed higher than an NBA All-Star here, nobody’s saying the prep is better than the pro. Instead, I’m looking at the whole picture: Who had an overall better season? Pound-for-pound, who made the biggest impact on their level? Who made the biggest mark on the entire game of basketball? Who made this season his own? So here are my Top 10 — not “10 best” — centers from the ‘08-09 season…
10. Marcin Gortat
You know how people will say their life is like a movie? Gortat’s life this year was like an infomercial: “In just 10 minutes a night, you too can earn 34 MILLION dollars!” Off the strength of exactly one standout playoff game (11 pts, 15 rebs vs. Philly) and no more than a handful of others in the regular season, Gortat was one of the most sought-after free agents on the ’09 market, with Dallas and Orlando fighting for the right to overpay him.
9. Derrick Favors
John Wall and Lance Stephenson got most of the attention, but quiet-as-kept big man Favors gave them a run for their money as arguably the best high school player in the country. The USA Today and PARADE national Player of the Year, Gatorade state P.O.Y. in Georgia (South Atlanta H.S.) and McDonald’s All-American Game MVP put up 27 points, 13 boards and five blocks a night, and will take his Baby Dwight Howard (Superboy?) game to Georgia Tech.
8. Nene / Birdman Andersen
I really couldn’t put one over the other; Nene (14.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg) and Birdman (6.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.5 bpg) were equally vital in Denver becoming a real championship contender. If you could put Nene’s offense and Birdman’s defense into the same player, you’d have a perennial All-Star, and the funniest-looking one-name athlete ever.
7. DeJuan Blair
And this is the last time you’ll ever see him on a list of centers. Blair’s 6-7 frame won’t allow him to play the five in the pros, but in college, he was a beast in the middle. A first team All-American and Big East co-Player of the Year, Blair (15.7 ppg, 12.3 rpg) anchored a Pitt team that was ranked No. 1 in the country for a couple of weeks, and went into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed, where they made the Elite Eight. Had he not slipped well into the second round of the NBA Draft, it would have been an all-around banner year for Blair.
6. Brook Lopez
The most surprisingly solid rookie of the ’08 class took over the starting job in New Jersey in mid-November and never gave it back. The Good Lopez averaged 13 points and 8.1 boards and got some serious Rookie of the Year talk, eventually finishing third in the voting. He could be a 20-and-10 staple down the line.
5. Yao Ming
Of course he’d be higher if he hadn’t broken his foot again, putting himself out for next season and possibly ending his career. But before all that, Yao finally got the Rockets past the first round of the playoffs, averaging 19.7 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocks.
4. Al Jefferson
Before a knee injury in February sidelined him for the rest of the year, Big Al was on his way to a breakout season. Had he stayed healthy long enough to qualify, he likely would have finished in the NBA’s Top 10 in scoring (23.1 ppg), rebounding (11 rpg) and blocks (1.7 bpg), and was easily this year’s biggest All-Star snub. Jefferson owned Yao in their head-to-head matchups (35 ppg, 17.5 rpg), hit the champion Lakers for 27 and 13 per game, gave Shaq 25 points and 14.5 boards in two meetings, averaged 29 and 11 against the Spurs, and averaged 27 points in two games against KG and his former team, the Celtics.
3. Hasheem Thabeet
If he never reaches his Dikembe Mutombo potential in the pros, Thabeet was at least a Deke copycat in the NCAA. He copped national Defensive Player of the Year, Big East DPOY and Big East co-Player of the Year, putting up 13.6 points, 10.8 boards and 4.2 blocks (second in the country). Along the way he had a triple-double when he slapped 15, 11 and 10 blocks on Providence. After taking UConn to the Final Four, Thabeet was picked No. 2 in the draft.
2. Shaquille O’Neal
Just when you thought he was done, he pushed the old Caddy into the station and put some more gas in the tank. Shaq (17.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.7 bpg) missed the playoffs for the first time since his rookie year, but he managed some vintage performances — 45 points vs. Toronto and 33 against the Lakers in back-to-back games — in the process, and won All-Star Game co-MVP. Off the court, like always, he knew what buttons to push to keep himself in the international headlines even when he wasn’t dominating on the court.
1. Dwight Howard
He’s gonna hold this spot for a while. Everybody knew he had it in him to lead the NBA in rebounds (13.8 rpg) and blocks (2.9 bpg) and pick up Defensive Player of the Year, but Dwight (20.6 ppg) went beyond expectations in the postseason. He carried Orlando to the NBA Finals, posting four 20-rebound games in the playoffs and four 30-point games. In the Eastern Conference Finals clincher, Dwight put it all together when he dumped 40 points and 14 boards on the Cavs. The unofficial record for players-dunked-on in a career would be in danger if guys didn’t get smart this year and start moving out of Dwight’s way.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
5. Randolph Morris — Yeah, he’s actually still in the NBA. In what was supposed to be a chance to prove himself on his hometown Hawks, Morris was glued to the bench, playing just 89 minutes all season.
4. Hamed Haddadi — How did somebody not get a camera crew up to Bismarck, North Dakota, to film the locals’ reactions to seeing a 7-foot Iranian walking around town? Even worse, Haddadi had to do those stints in the D-League because he couldn’t find minutes behind Darko.
3. Robin Lopez — If this is what the Suns were gonna do with a first-round pick, maybe they should be selling them every year.
2. Jerome James — This section should be named after him.
1. Eddy Curry — He got more playing time with “Dave” than with the Knicks.